Most people, and I certainly include myself in this, express opinions based on social customs with which we have become comfortable–even believing that these customs have some very deep roots in human, and even divinely ordered, morality.
Racism works like that, to be sure. We grow up with prejudice which seems natural because in our families and/or community or society at large it was just the norm, often unstated but clearly present.
But this is not limited to racism.
There is considerable controversy these days in New York over some women who are displaying their breasts in Times Square. Controversy may be too weak a term for some; many express outrage. Topless women threatens Western civilization!
Never mind that the state’s highest court said long ago that laws forbidding women to go topless in public but allow men do so amounts to discrimination based on sex (and thus is unconstitutional). But that does not stop parts of the local media and the Police Commissioner from threatening all sorts of actions to stop the outrage. Even Mayor Blasio is doing some foaming at the mouth about it.
And speaking of New York, did you hear about former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani going to his local precinct to complain about a homeless man living on his street? When he told of doing so, he called the time when people lived on the streets and did not use bathrooms inside “the dark ages.” That did not cause him to reflect on how difficult it must be for homeless people. Instead, he said, of his time as Mayor, “You chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase ’em out of the city.”
I have different sensibilities. Frankly, I would rather spend time with some of the homeless people I have known than with the Mayor. I lived in New York during much of his mayoralty, and it was often ugly–but not so much because of homeless people (rampant homelessness is ugly for its victims, yes, but not in the same way for the rest of us). I called him Mayor Bully-ani, because of the way he went after people who offended his sensibility.
And those women in Times Square? Who are they hurting? In fact, who would it hurt if women could be bare-chested in public, just like men?
Much of the body shame aimed at women is enforced by these sorts of prohibitions. And what is truly distressing is that the very act of hiding body parts can actually increase interest in them. So the act of denial leads to fetishes.
Hiding women’s breasts goes back to those dark ages spoken about by Mayor Giuliani, and earlier, when women were property of men; women were homebound creatures and their menfolk–husbands and fathers–did not want breasts, symbols of fertility, to be displayed.
And did you know this? It was not until 1936 that it was legal in New York State for men to bare their nipples? That trend seems to have taken off and become “normal.”
It will undoubtedly take longer to change attitudes toward homeless people. But we could start by making sure that being homeless is not viewed as a crime–the same way women baring breasts is not a crime.